Robert W. Woodruff

Robert Woodruff

"It always gave me pleasure to do something for somebody without being asked to do it. I don't like to be asked. I didn't want to be given credit."

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, like Emory University and the city of Atlanta, owes much to the man for whom the center is named. This legendary philanthropist and leader of The Coca-Cola Company left a legacy that will impact many generations to come.

Woodruff concentrated his gifts in the areas of health care, education, the arts, conservation of nature, and economic development and civic affairs.

Winship Cancer Institute

His first gift to Emory in 1937 helped establish the precursor to Emory's Winship Cancer Institute, named after his maternal grandfather. His interest may have been sparked by his mother's battle with cancer. Certainly he was dismayed that Atlantans had to travel to the North for cancer care. His gifts to Emory established what was at the time one of the nation's only clinics dedicated to cancer patients. Today, the Winship Cancer Institute has Georgia's largest cancer treatment program and most extensive cancer research program.


His influence on the health and welfare of individuals less fortunate extended from Atlanta to the farthest reaches of rural South Georgia. Once, when he had just purchased Ichauway, his plantation retreat, he saw an elderly farmer shaking from malaria. When Woodruff found that half the people in the area were afflicted with the disease, he provided the necessary funding and influence to eradicate the plague in that area.

Woodruff was a member of the Emory University Board of Trustees from 1935 to 1948 and served on the board's Executive Committee from 1938 to 1948.

In 1944, he offered to underwrite the School of Medicine's deficit through the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Foundation, which he managed with his brother George. The school's deficit sometimes ran to a quarter-million dollars annually, and Woodruff's gift helped develop a full-time faculty and modernize teaching programs.

Over the years, Woodruff made gifts that enabled construction of many buildings on campus, including the Center for Rehabilitation Medicine, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, White Hall, Atwood Chemistry Center, and funded renovations and additions to the Anatomy and Physiology Buildings and Emory University Hospital.

In 1979, Woodruff and his brother distributed assets of approximately $105 million to Emory - the largest gift to a university in history at the time. The gift, which includes Coca-Cola stock, helped make Emory's endowment the fifth largest of any university in the country as of June 1998.


Woodruff was born on December 6, 1889 in Columbus, Georgia, the son of Ernest and Emily Woodruff. After attending Emory College at Oxford for one term, he decided to work and learn a trade, becoming an apprentice machinist with the General Pipe and Foundry Company in Atlanta. His pay: 60 cents a day. As young Robert quickly moved up the ranks, Ernest offered his son a job as a buyer for the Atlantic Ice and Coal Company for $150 a month.

Robert married Nell Hodgson of Athens, Georgia, whose marriage cut short her own career of nursing. Her love of the field prompted Emory to later name its nursing school after her. They had no children.

Woodruff moved to White Motor Company, where he soon became vice president in the 1920s. During this time, his father had organized a syndicate that bought The Coca-Cola Company from Asa Candler for $25 million. Before long, the company began having financial troubles. So at age 33, Bob Woodruff was elected president of Coca-Cola in 1923 and began his illustrious 60-year career with the world's most popular soft drink company.

With innate marketing savvy, an ability to motivate and lead his employees, and a demand for quality, Woodruff built Coca-Cola into a household name and an international business by the end World War II. Even though he left active management in 1954, he remained a member of the Board of Directors until 1984.

By the time of his death on March 7, 1985, he had directed to Emory more than $230 million in personal gifts or funds from foundations he controlled. His gifts of every size, many of which were made anonymously and all of which were made selflessly and without stipulation, touched countless individuals. Emory owes him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

One group, however, might have come close. Another story is told of a small church near Ichauway that was destroyed by fire. When an anonymous gift arrived to repair the church, the congregation, who guessed who their benefactor was, simply wrote a thank-you note to God — and mailed it to Woodruff.